Deacon of Diocese of Des Moines to Resurrect Ember Days

Deacon Eric Bertrand of Warren County, Iowa, and Deacon Tom Hunkele of Des Moines bless hogs April 10. The Iowa deacons are reviving the ancient Catholic tradition of Ember days. (CNS photo/Kelly Mescher Collins, Diocese of Des Moines) See EMBER DAYS May 1, 2015.
Deacon Eric Bertrand of Warren County, Iowa, and Deacon Tom Hunkele of Des Moines bless hogs April 10. (CNS photo/Kelly Mescher Collins, Diocese of Des Moines)

Catholic New Service is reporting that a deacon in the Diocese of Des Moines has begun resurrecting the practice of Ember Days in the diocese. Deacon Eric Bertrand is the deacon of Sacred Heart Parish in Chariton and Holy Trinity Parish in Lacona. While reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Deacon Bertrand decided to reintroduce the tradition of Ember days in his community.

Ember days are four sets of three days within a week (specifically Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) that are set aside for fasting and prayer. They correspond roughly to the four seasons of the year and precede a liturgical feast day. Ember days were on the liturgical calendar until Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Paenitemini excluded them from days of fasting and abstinence in 1966.

In discussing the impact Evangelii Gaudium had on him, Deacon Bertrand noted that Pope Francis “talked about reawakening popular devotion.” This inspired Deacon Bertrand and other deacons he knew in rural ministry to begin exploring “bringing our spirituality out of the church.” The result was the reintroduction of the practices of Ember Days. Farmers can now request that priests and deacons make home visits and bless their seed, livestock, water sources, equipment, tools and land.

Some farmers are already excited to request this practice. In talking to The Catholic Mirror, the newspaper of the Diocese of Des Moines, Ralph Sheve, a farmer and parishioner of Sacred Heart, said he looks forward to having his farm and livestock blessed:

In blessing my farm, I hope it slows me down a little bit and makes me appreciate everything…I just feel very blessed. If I can do anything to enable me to grow more spiritually when I’m out there doing my physical work, that’s what I’m all about.

I think the resurrection of Ember days could be an important devotional practice for those who live and work in rural areas. These celebrations could remind rural and urban Catholics alike of the importance of the Earth and the fruits obtained from it.

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28 comments

  1. I don’t completely understand this post.
    RE; “Ember days are four sets of three consecutive days within a week (specifically Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) that are set aside for fasting and prayer. They correspond roughly to the four seasons of the year and precede a liturgical feast day.”
    –How are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday ‘consecutive’?
    –What feasts are they preceding?
    –Do these Ember Days occur during each season?
    –Are blessings offered only during Ember Days?
    –What previously prevented farmers from asking for blessings on their farms, livestock, etc.?
    –Without any disrespect to America’s wonderful farmers, do our priests really have the time to make home visits to bless farms anyway?

  2. I am sorry, you are correct. They are not consecutive days but fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday within the week. I think my mistaken use of “consecutive” is obvious. I have changed it above.

    The link in the post provides answers to some of your other questions:

    “Ember days occur four times per year, loosely corresponding to each season and preceding a liturgical feast day: Ash Wednesday in spring, Pentecost in summer, Exhaltation of the Holy Cross in fall and St. Lucy Day in winter.”

    Blessings can be offered at anytime for almost any reason, but the deacon appears to be setting these days aside as special days for the blessing of farms. Interestingly, he seems to be mixing the practice of Ember days with the blessings given on Rogation days.

  3. Perhaps I have misunderstood, but the “summer” Ember Days followed the feast of Pentecost, though they fell in the Octave of Pentecost.

  4. At some point in my long ago youth we were given this little aid for recalling when the Ember Days occurred:

    In Lent,
    post Pent,
    post crux,
    post lux.

  5. My father would every year bless the cows with holy water before they went into the fields in the spring time. At the time of thunder he would also bless the farm house as well. This was a custom in the Netherlands in the fifties. I never heard that the blessing of animals was connected with Ember days. They were rogation days with the procession of all saints over the fields for God’s blessing.

  6. The Lent and Pentecost Ember Days always fell after their correspondent liturgical day (Ash Wednesday/Pentecost); in earlier times the Lucy and Holy Rood (Exaltation of the Holy Cross) days might fall on either side, by being assigned to the nearest W/F/Sa, but the 1962 calendar altered this so that they always begin on the Wednesday after the feast.

    While Rogation Days are slightly better suited for blessings of fields because they are meant specifically to avert bad natural phenomena (and thereby petition the good), Ember Days were nonetheless often associated with benchmarks of the agricultural season. I say often because the intended meaning of the Ember Days was never all that clear and had, at any rate, faded from our collective memory well before the High Middle Ages, such that their observance took on very diverse forms, even getting twisted so far as to include feasting or other forms of sumptuousness (like bathing) on what were meant to be penitential/fast days. That said, one of the favorite theories of liturgists was once (I cannot say how much traction it may still enjoy) that the three non-Lenten sets of days were instituted to correspond with/counteract Roman customs related to the agricultural season – some may even have maintained, IIRC, that these were linked to harvests/completion of wheat, oil, and wine.

  7. This /should/ be another area where both sides of most Catholic debates can find common ground. The traditionalist can say, “Hey, look. We’re restoring something that was a good tradition for the faithful to follow.” The progressive can say, “Hey, look. We’re heightening our awareness of how we are all interconnected with our environment and affecting it.” But why come together on faith in practice and show each other good will when we can quibble about other things? 😉

  8. Pope Francis did not “talk about reawakening popular devotion”. He talked about the evangelizing power of popular piety, which is something different. I do not think that by any stretch of the imagination the observance of Ember Days could be described as a component of popular piety. This observance had fallen out of use long before the Council, and Paul VI’s suppression of Ember and Rogation Days was simply acknowledging that fact.

    I see no real benefit to attempting to revive a practice which was actually not there before — that is simple antiquarianism. By all means let us bless livestock, fields, harvests, etc, and make liturgy and life intersect more tangibly, but there is no need to do this under the umbrella of reviving a popular devotion which actually wasn’t.

    1. New popular devotions have to come from somewhere. Reaching back into the storehouse of tradition seems as good a place as any to find ideas.

  9. Paul Inwood : I see no real benefit to attempting to revive a practice which was actually not there before — that is simple antiquarianism.

    Really? Congregational exchange of the sign of peace? Communion under both species for the laity? The RCIA? The diaconate as a permanent office? An Old Testament reading at Mass? Most of these had not been around since the 5th century. Resurrecting Ember Days may or may not be a good idea, but they can’t really be dismissed simply because they had fallen out of use.

  10. It is indeed a mix of the concepts of ember and rogation days. The deacon is borrowing the timing of ember days (4 times a year, corresponding with each season) and the ‘theme’ of rogation days (prayers for protection from disaster, especially in an agricultural context).

    Who can argue with the practice itself? The deacon should be encouraged and thanked for his efforts. I’d think his only mistake may have been in choosing to call what he’s doing “ember days.” This probably only muddied the waters more than was necessary — stirring up associations with pre-Vatican II liturgy and pulling what he’s doing into all the associated political controversies. (Then again, maybe it was brilliant. Would anyone beyond a few local farmers even have noticed if he had just called it “blessing the fields”? Now we all know about it.)

  11. Paul VI did not suppress the Ember and Rogation Days. The fasting obligations attached to them ceased to be binding in 1966 but there is no indication that the days themselves were to be abolished. Rather the revised liturgical books left it for local conferences of bishops to determine, in the light of local needs and circumstances, how and when they would be observed.

    For that reason, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal refers to them, saying that they the Rogation and Ember days should be indicated in national calendars (394).

    The General Norms for the Liturgical Year flesh things out a bit more:

    “45. On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labour, and to make public thanksgiving.

    46. In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the faithful, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year.

    47. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”

  12. I don’t know what other conferences of bishops have done but here in England and Wales, the bishops initially established six “days of special prayer” without distinguishing between Ember Days and Rogation Days. Over the years, more days of prayer were added.

    In 1996, they established a “cycle of prayer” with intentions for different seasons of the year and some special days of prayer. The cycle can be viewed at http://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Calendar/Cycle/Index.shtml

    The cycle has a wonderful selection of intentions. Unfortunately, my experience is that very few of the faithful feel any connection to this “cycle of prayer”.

  13. Fritz Bauerschmidt :

    href=”#comment-6345967″ rel=”nofollow”>Paul Inwood : I see no real benefit to attempting to revive a practice which was actually not there before — that is simple antiquarianism.

    ### Really? Congregational exchange of the sign of peace? Communion under both species for the laity? The RCIA? The diaconate as a permanent office? An Old Testament reading at Mass? Most of these had not been around since the 5th century. Resurrecting Ember Days may or may not be a good idea, but they can’t really be dismissed simply because they had fallen out of use.

    My point was about the revival of something as if it were a devotional practice when clearly it wasn’t. None of your examples falls into that category. Rather, they come under the heading of ressourcement. Ember Days and Rogation Days are historically later than that.

    (And as a matter of record, Communion under both kinds for the laity after the Council had already happened several years before it was officially approved — edict catching up with practice.)

    1. Or – careful liturgical study via council + Concilium + Pope vs. accretions that were seen as secondary. Even more, ressourcement e.g. Deacon’s examples had to do with significant sacraments to retrieve their sign/symbol in the community’s actions – decisions that impacted the world. Ember Days, etc. were Latin/European – narrow, limited, etc

  14. I thought the Ember days followed a feast (e.g, Holy Cross, Pentecost, St. Lucy Day, First Sunday in Lent (???), and the Rogation Days were tied in with the Solemnity of the Ascension or the Feast of St. Mark. Can we get some clarification on this?

    Rachel — Priests in rural areas should make the time for bless crops, anmals and fields. Deaccons can assist.

    1. Yes, if I recall correctly these fell after a particular observance of some significance, and this is still the case in some Anglican circles (and prayer books, which still maintain the practice). Usually Ember Days were connected with prayer for the ministry and mission of the Church and were traditional times for ordinations.

      The Rogation Days were usually the three weekdays before the Feast of the Ascension (observed on the Thursday after the Sixth Sunday of Easter), and the Feast of St. Mark, and were marked with mostly penitential processions. It is probable that these dropped out of liturgical practice with the re-emphasis on Easter as a mostly festal season, but I leave it up to the more knowledgeable folk here to unpack these things.

  15. Paul Inwood : Rather, they come under the heading of ressourcement. Ember Days and Rogation Days are historically later than that.

    The Ember Days go back at least to Leo, who thought them rather old (by his day the attribution of “apostolic” may often be read as akin to “immemorial custom”). Point taken that Ember “devotion” had no legs to stand it back up on, what will be next to fall to your ax removing all that is too late-breaking for ressourcement – the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom? the catechumenate? 😉

  16. I’m glad the deacon found a way to expand his ministry. I can’t believe that we are having a conversation about ember/rotation days, but then this is the season of resurrection. How about restoring the praying of the rosary and head covering for women? SC said that devotions should be developed that flow from the liturgy and lead back to it. Or is going back to a 1960‘s document a form of antiquarianism?

    1. I’ve visited parishes where women — young women, mind you, in their 30s and younger — would very carefully veil their hair before Mass. I was in attendance over a long enough period of time to discern a few truths from it:

      1) Nobody in particular was telling them to do so. They’d simply elected to do so on their own.
      2) They were plugged into the flow of the liturgy quite thoroughly and powerfully. While others were tuning out, mumbling responses, and only superficially engaged, these women were /in the zone/. They got it.
      3) Their preparation actually reminded me quite a bit of some of the prayers that clergy would pray while vesting, particularly the prayer used for donning the amice:

      “Place, O Lord, the helmet of Salvation upon my head to repel the assaults of the Devil.”

      Their example was truly humbling for me to observe; while I would never insist on someone doing it, those who freely elect to do so clearly have something going for them. Wasn’t it Qoheleth who said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” ?

      1. Shaughn: I’ve visited parishes where women — young women, mind you, in their 30s and younger — would very carefully veil their hair before Mass. I was in attendance over a long enough period of time to discern a few truths from it:

        1) Nobody in particular was telling them to do so. They’d simply elected to do so on their own.

        I disagree that (1) is necessarily the case. In traditionalist circles, I’ve long suspected that there is pressure from parents and peers to wear a headcovering. I strongly hope that no parent would ever pressure a daughter to wear a veil or hat to Mass. I also applaud those women who protest against parental or communal pressures to wear a headcovering.

        Hopefully a bishop would advise a pastor who encourages women to wear a headcovering to desist. Also, women who feel pressured by other persons to wear a headcovering should let their pastor know that this pressure exists. While I respect an individual woman’s choice to wear a headcovering at Mass, this choice must be hers alone.

  17. Aaron Sanders :

    Paul Inwood : Rather, they come under the heading of ressourcement. Ember Days and Rogation Days are historically later than that.

    ### The Ember Days go back at least to Leo, who thought them rather old (by his day the attribution of “apostolic” may often be read as akin to “immemorial custom”). Point taken that Ember “devotion” had no legs to stand it back up on, what will be next to fall to your ax removing all that is too late-breaking for ressourcement – the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom? the catechumenate?

    Given that Ember Days, etc, did not finally expand to reach the universal Church until about the 8th century…. but let’s not get into an argument over dates.

    Thank you for your support of my point about the so-called Ember devotion. I’m still convinced that the deacon in Des Moines could have easily started up the blessing of farms, livestock, equipments, etc, without going anywhere near Ember or Rogation Days, and that would have been entirely praiseworthy and worthy of emulation. It was the “resuscitation” of Ember/Rogation Days as if this were part of popular Catholic religiosity that I objected to. To me, that has the whiff of antiquarianism.

  18. Excuse me Father, but Rogation processions are precisely a devotion flowing from the Mass. Having had Mass first, a real procession literally flows out of the church and walks the ‘bounds’ of the parish (around the block? up the street? around the corner? through the parking lots?), sing the litany of the Saints, while the priest sprinkles holy water, invoking God’s blessing, not so much anymore for successful crops, but in recognition of what’s been provided to us and for it’s good use and protection. Then maybe returning to the church for the blessing and dismissal?
    How can this be antiquarianism or rolling back the clock to pre-VII? It’s folk religion at it’s finest, not to mention a witness to the world.

  19. I served for 12 years in a rural area, and know how planting and harvesting seasons structure commuity life for several months a year. The blessings of fields, farm implements, seeds, crops and livestock were important rituals that drew folks together. Designate them what you will (I have no problem with the term Rogation Days), but the Ember Days remind us of the need for fasting and praying as year-round spiritual activities.

  20. Why the opposition to using the form and name of Ember Days?
    If this works now, why the angst about “reviving” something.

    Sometimes things, like fields, need a rest to become fruitful again.

    Mark Miller
    Episcopal

  21. Hello. My name is Deacon Eric. I am actually the deacon you are discussing. I would like to thank all of you for the wonderful information, and helping me view this from many angles that I never thought about.

    In summary, I pray now constantly that these practices may help bring God more deeply into the everyday life and activities of people, particularly those involved in agriculture.

    I pray that God will allow this practice to flourish, but if it is not his will, then this practice may simply die away. In either case: His will be done.

    Christ’s blessings.
    Deacon Eric

  22. Let’s not forget Sts. Isidore the Farmer and his wife, Maria de la Cabeza, patrons of farmers. May 15 and Sept. 9 (????) for the blessings for planting and harvesting.

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